Charter school works with police after attempted student abduction

Doug Mastriano’s security bubble insulates him from prying eyes and dissenting views

William Bender and Chris Brennan
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — On a weekday afternoon in late August, Doug Mastriano’s campaign bus pulled up outside Gatsby’s Bar & Grill in suburban Philadelphia just after 1 p.m. The words “Restore Freedom” were emblazoned on the side over a red outline of Pennsylvania.

It had been billed as a meet-and-greet. Enthusiastic Republicans were waiting to welcome the candidate for governor as he stepped off the bus. Across the parking lot, a few dozen Democrats had just wrapped up a mini-protest.

But Mastriano didn’t have to deal with any of that. Before the bus had parked, he’d already ducked into Gatsby’s through another entrance.

A Mastriano supporter blocks photographers trying for a picture of State Sen. Doug Mastriano at Jurin Roofing Services in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in August. His campaign's strong-arm tactics have perplexed seasoned Republican operatives. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

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Fifteen minutes later, a man with a gray goatee who was wearing an earpiece, blue jeans and a Mastriano T-shirt made his way along the bar, ordering people to clear a path. His manner was so gruff and condescending that some in the crowd chuckled uneasily, thinking he might be joking around.

He was not. He was part of Mastriano’s security detail.

“And stay there!” he yelled over a photojournalist’s shoulder after ordering her to move to the other side of the room.

As he tours the Commonwealth, Mastriano has essentially walled himself off from the general public, traveling within a bubble of security guards and jittery aides who aim to not just keep him safe but ensure he only comes into contact with true believers.

Videographer: That afternoon in Delaware County, Jeremy Oliver, a videographer for Mastriano’s campaign, wandered around the room, shooting footage with a phone on a handheld stabilizer. He spotted a woman in the corner that he suspected could be trouble. He’d overheard her say something about Jan. 6.

“What was the question that you shouted?” Oliver, wearing a Project Veritas hat and a Captain America shirt, asked her. “Did you make a statement?”

Oliver, whose company, Onslaught Media, has been paid about $82,500 by Mastriano’s campaign, threatened to have her “escorted out” of the building. She didn’t understand why.

“I’ve just been standing here,” she protested.

It quickly became clear that Oliver was wrong. The woman was not a rabble-rouser but a Mastriano loyalist. She was only saying that she saw him at the Capitol on the day of the insurrection — because she was there too.

The potential threat averted, Oliver returned to recording the candidate. The first big round of applause came when Mastriano praised Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and pledged to make Pennsylvania “the Florida of the north.”

Security, front left, block media and uninvited guests from interacting with Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor, at Gatsby's Bar & Grill in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Journalists blocked: Earlier that afternoon, Mastriano had stopped in Montgomery County. Again, one of his supporters snapped into action, blocking a news photographer from taking photos of the event from the other side of a chain-link fence. He put his body between the lens and the candidate.

Similarly, when Mastriano and his wife, Rebbie, were chatting last weekend with Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene at the rally with Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, a Mastriano aide did his part to limit the candidate’s exposure. The aide kept shifting from side to side, mirroring the movements of a New York Times reporter behind him and using his back to muscle her away from the scene.

On Wednesday in the Pittsburgh area, journalists were warned to keep their distance and “not to engage with Doug or Rebbie.” Campaign staff and Mastriano supporters at one point physically blocked the press, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“No longer will you have a governor reigning over you with terror and fear,” Mastriano told the crowd.

Rebbeca and Doug Mastriano, PA gubernatorial candidate, in center, with Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, on right, at the Save America rally at the Mohegan Sun Casey Arena in Wilkes-Barre, P.A. on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

A nontraditional campaign: Republican leaders around the state had hoped that Mastriano’s unorthodox campaign would evolve over the summer and begin reaching out to undecided voters. Instead, the opposite has happened. Labor Day came and went.

His slogan is “walk as free people,” but the retired Army colonel and his enforcers, at times, operate as if under siege in their home state, employing strong-arm tactics more reminiscent of authoritarian regimes.

The days of freewheeling, Chris Christie-style town halls are long gone. On the campaign trail with Mastriano, dissent is squelched. Questions are neither asked nor answered. Paranoia is rampant.

Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican political consultant who ran unsuccessfully in the GOP gubernatorial primary, has pushed for Mastriano to transition to a more traditional campaign. He’s concerned by the beating the Republican is taking in the press from Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor.

“The Shapiro campaign is trying to paint him into a corner, and he’s the one person who can get himself out of that corner,” Gerow said.

Gerow, who started his career working on Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, said Mastriano should consider taking a page out of the late president’s playbook and attempt to show the public that he’s not the bomb-throwing extremist that Democrats make him out to be.

“I believe if Doug Mastriano engaged with the media just a little bit and allowed the people of Pennsylvania who still have some questions or doubts about him to see who he really is, and what he has done throughout his life, that they will vote for him and he’ll be elected,” Gerow said.

Increasingly common path: That appears unlikely this late in the campaign, based on Mastriano’s history of dealing only with conservative media outlets.

Keena Lipsitz, a political science professor at the City University of New York and expert in political communication and behavior, said Mastriano appears to have chosen a path that is becoming increasingly common in modern politics: Forget about the undecideds. Focus on your base, and hope that they vote and recruit friends and family.

“It’s not a surprising strategy. But it’s an unfortunate one for democracy,” Lipsitz said. “Everyone is in their little information silos.”

Lipsitz said Mastriano also has staked out extreme policy positions that could limit his ability to broaden his appeal. On abortion, for instance, he is more conservative than Trump and has said he wants to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest. Open-ended discussions, debates or ads on such issues could be risky.

“When you got these far-right candidates, if they go out and run ads trying to emphasize a more moderate position, that might not be appreciated by their base,” Lipsitz said. “That might be a reason why you just stick to your base of supporters and make sure your side turns out more people than the other side.”

Endorsed by Donald Trump, Doug Mastriano has a large and loyal following. He's betting that will be enough to get him elected. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Mastriano has rejected the notion of media-moderated debates. Shapiro recently used that to contrast how he and Mastriano are running very different campaigns.

“We’ve got a long history in this commonwealth of gubernatorial candidates submitting to the questions of the media,” Shapiro said at a news conference, answering questions. “I do that everywhere I go.”

Capitol Police protection: Mastriano set the tone early for how his campaign would operate heading into the general election.

He returned to the Capitol in Harrisburg after the May primary to work with other legislators on outstanding bills, including the state budget. Once treated as a pariah by some Senate colleagues, his reception was suddenly much warmer.

But it was still chilly for anyone who had questions Mastriano didn’t want to hear. He was escorted in the building by Capitol Police officers who kept people back. At one July 1 event in the Capitol rotunda, that escort involved an officer in a full camouflage uniform with an assault rifle slung across his chest.

The Department of General Services recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer it had no record of Mastriano or his office requesting that kind of enhanced protection.

Last month, LancasterOnline reported that several members of Mastriano’s nonprofessional armed security team belonged to an evangelical church called LifeGate, including the former regional leader of the Oath Keepers militia.

Bubble gets national attention: Mastriano’s game of keep-away drew national attention the weekend before May’s primary, when his supporters blocked most reporters from attending a final rally he held in Warminster.

NBC News reported that one of the Mastriano supporters who blocked access had been photographed on Jan. 6, 2021, smiling and laughing as rioters smashed media equipment.

An Inquirer reporter who was admitted to the May 14 rally heard Mastriano denounce the media as “spreading disinformation and false claims as messengers of propaganda.”

In the four months since, the situation has deteriorated further, with Mastriano’s campaign seeking to block local news coverage even when the event hosts had invited the press. It has become ready-made material for Democratic attack ads.

One way to penetrate the bubble, however, seems to be extreme flattery.

When Salena Zito, who writes for the conservative Washington Examiner, reached out to the Mastriano campaign, she was rebuffed.

“I’ve tried numerous times and was told publicly at an event two weeks ago in Pittsburgh by his campaign strategist that because I had not written anything nice about him, I would not be granted an interview until I wrote something that was,” Zito wrote on Sept. 4.

But when an obscure ultraorthodox rabbi named Joseph Kolakowski contacted the campaign to say he wanted to defend Mastriano against allegations of antisemitism, he received their cooperation.

Kolakowski told The Inquirer that Mastriano campaign manager Vishal Jetnarayan — a self-described prophet who says he speaks directly to God, according to WHYY — asked him to write up his endorsement.

The conservative Epoch Times then reported on Kolakowski’s endorsement, which Mastriano’s team went on to repackage as campaign material and push it out on social media.

In addition to endorsing Mastriano for governor, Kolakowski has championed the QAnon conspiracy theory as a beneficial child welfare movement, speculated that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Jan. 6 ordered police to “push innocent people into that building in order to make the president’s supporters look bad” and claimed that Adolf Hitler was a hybrid lizard-human who wore boots to conceal his “reptilian” toes.

The Mastriano campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.